One HELL of a Struggle: How Womanhood and the Feminine Space Challenge Violent Misogyny in From Hell

In Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, From Hell, the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper is portrayed as Royal Surgeon William Gull, a Masonic hitman with a taste for elaborate disembowelments of his five prostitute victims. Characterized by a marked knowledge of and dedication to history and mythology, Gull gives Netley a remarkably detailed (and very twisted, sorry not sorry, this was crazy) historical account of many of London’s architectural structures that makes up the bulk of Chapter 4. Brimming with esoteric references to ancient cultures and religions that depict the fall of woman under male tyranny, the chapter delivers a wordy and starkly visual depiction of Gull’s justification for his murders. Notably, when he and Netley pass by Christ Church, Spitalfields, Gull states, “The only populations that are constant hereabouts, untouched by passing centuries, are those perpetual multitudes of beggars, criminals…and whores” (4, 32).

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The page cited in my above quote.

Just like the Obelisk in Bunhill Fields or St. George’s Church in the east, the Christ Church is designed phallically, with a looming verticality that underscores Gull’s fascination with goddesses such as Diana succumbing “the harsh male brilliance of a Father Sun” and his underlying malice towards “whores” who never seem to be cleansed from history (4, 35). This perpetuity of prostitutes introduces the temporal element to the feminine space depicted in this graphic novel, for the majority of it seems to be dominated by a murderous male hellbent on not only killing his female victims, but mutilating their bodies and removing their uteruses. This obsession with the female reproductive system is depicted powerfully in Chapter 8 when Gull murders Liz Stride. As he finishes up his token disemboweling, he cuts out Liz’s uterus and is suddenly portrayed in a primal, triumphant stance in front of a 1980s skyscraper. Not only did this scene make me double check that I wasn’t missing any pages, but it also transported the violent and disturbing episodes of Jack the Ripper to the modern quotidian sphere in a temporal whammy that underscores the essence of continuity. With the old mapped onto the new, this unsettling parallel of a phallic architectural feature that we now take for granted–skyscrapers–with the pagan and ancient connections to vertical London structures implies the neverending presence of the violent misogyny that Jack the Ripper represents. The knife Gull is holding in this panel on page 40 further emphasizes the phallic and, therefore, male-dominated nature of his rampage, for the knife is pointed and clearly visible, unlike the uterus clenched in his left hand.

Of course, while this violence shmilence is all hell and not good, and, yes Ripperology is a thing, what struck me as subtle yet desperately in need of attention is the power of the lingering female presence that follows the Ripper’s trail and lasts beyond it as well. In the Chapter 8 panel of Gull in front of the skyscraper, although the uterus is hidden within his grasp, the fact that both the uterus and knife are held at equal lengths up above his head suggests a certain equality between the male and female spirits at play here. Moreover, although Gull murders the five target prostitutes, the large population of prostitutes that remains in London after his deed and after his death live up to his earlier claim that they are “untouched by passing centuries.” This untouchability translates into the women he sees in the modern 1980s office space in Chapter 10 when he is transported following Mary Kelly’s disembowelment to a futuristic era. While this suggests the worrisome idea that modern life is still entrenched in the pain and horror of the Ripper’s time, the prevalence of modern women working alongside male counterparts in a setting where Gull laments, “your own flesh is made meaningless to you,” demonstrates a rebellion against the convolution of female flesh into the target of misogyny (10, 22). Female flesh carries on the untouchability that Gull once snarled at. The fact that Gull even remarks to Mary’s corpse, “how times have levelled us. We are made equal,” suggests Gull undermines and contradicts his own male-centric beliefs in the face of alternatives (10, 22). In a quite stomach-churning yet illuminating action, Gull’s embrace of Kelly’s bloody corpse is a physical manifestation of a certain submission to and embracing of his need for the female space. By claiming that they are “wed” in eternity, Gull again equalizes their connection (10, 23).

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Ugh. So LonDONE with this guy (Gull hugging Mary Kelly’s body)

Gull’s final vision of a woman (presumably Mary Kelly) in Ireland in 1904/1905 as he is dying leaves a lasting impression as to the power of the female over the male threat. Gull admits, “within her eyes, that terrible ferocity. I am afraid of her” (14, 23). Gull is brought under the scrutiny of a forceful female whose 4 daughters are named after the slain women, demonstrating the propagation of the female spirit in spite of male violence. That this vision occurs in the non-urban space of the Irish countryside does suggest that perhaps such obvious stances against misogyny thrive best when not hindered by the menacing nature of a metropolis, but that it exists as an alternative at all (and, moreover, as the final alternative Gull must see before he dies), demonstrates that the feminine space can indeed utilize its untouchability to ward off misogynistic inclinations and leave a lasting mark on their temporal domain.

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